Rest Houses and Way Stations - Rest for the Weary Traveler in the Ancient Past

Rest for the Weary Traveler in the Ancient Past

Reconstructed Mansio Wall in Staffordshire
Reconstructed Mansio Wall in Staffordshire. Alun Salt

An essential element of any reasonable road system is a place for the traveler to stop for the night. Without roadside inns, travelers would be forced to camp out, to bring their own tents, cook their own food, and build their own campfires. They would be at the mercy of wild animals and thieves in the night. That is true today, and it was true at least as long ago as 500 BC, and probably longer.

The similarities of roadside houses throughout history are many.

They provided the traveler a place to sleep; a place to refresh pack animals (if any); a place to repair equipment; a place to get water and food; a place to be sheltered from inclement weather; even a place to share news with other travelers. These similarities hold up, regardless of whether the traveler was on foot or on horseback or leading a camel train, whether the traveler was an Inca courier or a Roman soldier or Mesopotamian merchant, or one of the countless traders of the Silk Road. But it's the differences that make the study of way stations and rest houses a fascinating part of the study of ancient roads.

Roman Mansio

The Imperial Roman form of a roadside inn was called a mansio (plural mansiones). These were dotted along the Roman roads throughout the Empire, and they were designated as places where official travelers including couriers could sleep, change horses and bathe. Often mansiones had two classes of rooms: one for the ordinary traveler, and a fancier one for the Imperial traveler.

Some mansiones had adjacent blacksmiths and other workshops, bathhouses, granaries and other storehouses, and markets. For the most part, a mansio was built outside of the defenses of the town, clearly providing access to travelers and at the same time maintaining protection for the local inhabitants.

Archaeologists have reported that, sadly for us, the better class rooms of the mansiones were swept clean for visitors.

The mansio at Catterick, a second century AD Roman town in Yorkshire, covered nearly half a hectare (1.2 acre), and consisted of two main groups of rooms behind a wide veranda. A small internal courtyard held an ornamental fountain and a bathhouse. Each group of rooms had its own water supply, as did the adjacent bathhouse. Most of the floors were concrete, and the walls were covered in painted plaster. The mansio had a portico doorway with columns, and was close to the river's edge, probably near a bridge. The bathhouse was pretty fancy, with three heated rooms, a hot bath, a cold room and large plunge bath, a changing room, and a small square sweating room.

Recent research at Chelmsford, a small, rural town on the road between Colchester and London, revealed that during the early second century AD, the local innkeepers took special pains to make sure that traveling imperial visitors felt at home. The types of pottery used at the mansio were similar to the kinds of pottery discovered at urban Roman sites like Colchester: Samian vessels, moratoria, flagons and olive oil amphorae, including a high percentage of imported wares.

In comparison, the kind of pots found at the local temple had a much higher frequency of locally-made Romano-British pottery, most notably when comparing jar forms and dining vessels. Researcher Martin Pitts believes that difference represents an attempt on the part of the hostel owners to maintain social coherence for elite visitors: providing a "home away from home" for the elite Romans.

Tampu Along the Inca Road

Way stations within the vast Inca road system of the 15th and 16th centuries AD were called tampu (sometimes spelled tambu), and like the other types of way stations they were placed on the roadway at a day's journey apart. Although they vary in detail, tampu usually included a large plaza flanked by buildings. A small platform near the center of the plaza and storage facilities called colca might be located on adjacent hillsides.

Generally, the housing included an elite section. Ceramics found at tampu are generally local vessels made to Inca specifications.

Tampu were important resting locations for couriers who relayed information concerning the far-flung Inca Empire back to the kings in Cuzco, as well as Inca traders who transported goods and services via alpaca and llama and on foot. Tampu also acted as post stations, so that local leaders could regularly communicate with Cuzco.

Some of the tampu contained a building known as a kalanka, which some scholars interpret as a barracks. Such structures are rectangular, built of high quality pirka masonry. An example of a kalanka at Huanaco Viejo measures 11 m (36 ft) wide by 71 m (233 ft) long, with nine separate doorways opening onto the adjacent plaza and eight windows on the opposite wall. Excavations indicated that at least seven central posts were needed to support the roof.

Along the Silk Road

Called caravansaries, way stations along the vast Silk Road were in general long, rectangular adobe-built structures with gated openings built large enough to permit the entry of camels carrying tall packs. Caravansaries were constructed as early as the first or second centuries BC, and perhaps earlier, and many were used intermittently or continuously up through the Middle Ages.

The longevity of these sites attests to the importance of way stations along such an extensive communication and trade network. Caravansaries varied widely in architecture and amenities depending on local climate and requirements of the travelers.

  • Read more about caravansaries

Achaemenid Royal Road

A total of 111 way stations were reported in the historical records as existing on the main branch of the Achaemenid Royal Road between the Mesopotamian towns of Susa and Sardis. This road was built by Darius the Great during his rule [521–485 BC] of the Persian Empire. Reportedly, the way stations were primarily for keeping replacements for tired horses.

Only a handful of way stations have been identified archaeologically--and scholars are not agreed on the identification. One strong candidate for a way station is a large (40x30 meters) five-room stone building near the site of Kuh-e Qale; another is at the site of JinJan (Tappeh Survan), in Iran.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Ancient Roads, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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